Why I wrote ‘Missing Lives’

This was a very different journey for me, and it is a very different book. In some ways it’s the hardest project I’ve ever undertaken.

Writers, even those working in non-fiction, often approach their subjects with a certain detachment. Such an approach was simply impossible for me in Balkans where the wars are so recent, emotions so raw and many disputes still unresolved. During a month of travelling I met men and women, sons and daughters, who suffer daily, hourly, from the effects of callous, cruel and calculated acts of violence, often perpetrated by people who are still their neighbours. The survivors told me their stories, and after the interviews I had to retreat to a quiet corner and weep.

Of course the bereaved could not escape from the pain of not knowing the fate of the loved one (or loved ones). Yet none of them displayed hunger for revenge. They simply wanted to know what happened and to have a body — or even a few bones — returned to them so as to bring closure and enable them to start living again. Their lives have also gone missing of course. They are among the strongest, most couregeous people I’ve ever met.

The book differed from my other works in that I used no fictional devices. To my mind the fifteen individual stories — so shocking, so heartbreaking — had to be told as succinctly and directly as possible, to bring forth the voices of the bereaved alone. I wanted to impose nothing of myself on their narrative. I aimed to be invisible, acting simply as a bridge between the subject and the reader.

There’s also a personal reason that wrote the text for ‘Missing Lives’. I have admired Nick Danzger’s photojournalism for years. In his hands, cameras don’t only capture the visible surface of things but rather see beyond the light, into the dark (or glowing) heart of his subjects. The opportunity to work together, relating these important, representative stories in parallel narratives and media, could not be missed.

I also seized the chance to work with designer and typographer Mark Thomson, former art director at Collins and Taschen, who is principal of London-based International Design UK, designing and producing award-winning books with artists and publishers worldwide. He has brought together Nick’s and my efforts with a measure of flair and imagination rarely seen in contemporary publishing.